Burnished and Brown
Although sommeliers still have to do a lot of explaining, orange wine is finally coming into its own. Simon Woolf wrote an utterly readable and thoroughly informed book, Amber Revolution, about a type of wine that is simultaneously the latest trend and an ancient tradition.
The often burnished, dark colour is what throws most people off when they first encounter an orange or amber wine. To this day, there are still people, among them acknowledged wine experts, who dismiss the colour as a sign of oxidation. For lovers of orange wine, like myself, the vivid amber hue is a marvel.
But first, what exactly is orange wine? Woolf keeps it simple. An orange wine is juice of white grapes fermented with the skins. This essential skin-contact, which can last from several hours to many months, causes the extraction of pigments and tannines to give the wine its color (anything from almost indistinguishable from white wines to brownish orange, depending on the grape variety and the duration of skin-contact) and texture.
The roots of the modern orange wines lie in Goriška Brda or Friuli Collio, adjacent regions on both sides of the Italo-Slovenian border, which has been heavily fought over by the Italians and Austro-Hungarians during the First World War in the battles of the Isonzo. After the Italian triumph and the collapse of the empire, many Slovenians ended up becoming Italians, including Joško Gravner, one of the godfathers of orange wine. After a disappointing visit in 1987 to California where he realized the future of wine shouldn’t be in high tech, high alcohol and too much oak, Gravner felt he needed to find a new way forward. He didn’t have to look far; until two generations ago, it was common around the Adriatic to make skin-macerated wines, as orange wines are technically called. As modern techniques were not yet available, vintners used the preservative qualities of tannines from the skins to make stable and storable wines.
In a remote corner of Europe, in Georgia to be precise, a centuries-old way of wine production had all but become extinct. The cradle of wine, the Caucasian republic used to have an enormous number of indigenous grapes and an ancient tradition of making skin-contact wines in large, buried, clay amphorae or qvevris. Under communist rule, vine-growers were obliged to deliver their grapes to a cooperative, which subsequently mass-produced bland wines that befitted the average Russian taste, almost annihilating the ancient tradition.
But Gravner was just in time: An enlightening trip to Georgia around the year 2000 – after the Iron Curtain had come down and Georgia had gained its hard-fought independence -, led him to find his destiny: skin-macerated amphora wines. Meanwhile, the production of orange wines in Georgia is booming again.
Orange wines don’t necessarily have to be fermented or matured in amphorae, neither do they have to be natural wines, a misunderstanding that is quite common. Natural wines are made from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes that are processed with a minimum of human intervention: no or very little sulphur, spontaneous fermentation with naturally present yeasts (as opposed to controlled fermentation using industrial yeasts), no filtration, and so on. As the skins typically contain the most residual chemicals, most producers choose to use organic grapes for their skin-macerated wines. For that reason, there is a great, but not full overlap between natural wines and orange wines.
Woolf focuses in his book, understandably, on Italy, Slovenia and Georgia, which he does with a keen eye for historical context and British wit. And where is Austria in all this? It may not be leading the pack, but certainly is an early adopter, which is proven by the relatively long list of recommended Austrian producers. Loimer (Lower Austria), Andert (Burgenland, picture) and Tscheppe (Styria) are just a few names.
Despite the fact that the trend has meanwhile gone global – from Barossa in Australia, to Napa in California and to the Valle de Oca in Perú (e.g. José Moquillaza, not mentioned in the book) – orange wine is still a niche, although one that is mostly taken seriously now. It remains to be seen if it will become as mainstream as a glass of rosé; as long as sommeliers list the orange wines with the whites, the Amber Revolution isn’t complete.
Simon J. Woolf – Amber Revolution
Published by Morning Claret Productions 2018.
First American edition published in 2018 by Interlink Books.
€35,- through www.themorningclaret.com